In the aftermath of the worst bushfire crisis in Australia’s history, Whitehaven Coal and the NSW Mineral lobby are trying to push a new coal mine through the Independent Planning Commission. This is one of dozens of new coal projects. Nestled on the banks of the Namoi River in the Northern Tablelands, on a property which was the inspiration for much of Dorothea McKellar’s poetry (author of the famous line, I Love a Sunburnt Country), farmers and the local council are fighting to stop Whitehaven’s Vickery coal mine. Callum Foote reports.
Despite rising community concern over climate change, there are currently 12 new or expanding coal and coal-seam gas projects in NSW alone, making a total of 52 existing or proposed projects in the state. This number represents just under half of the national total of 116.
Source: Lock The Gate Alliance
One controversial aspect of the Vickery project however is that it is opposed by not only the local community but the Council itself. The state government has the option to over-ride community opposition, opposition based not only on environmental grounds but also on social and economic grounds.
This new, larger Vickery project would still source 85% of its water needs from the Namoi River itself, which forms part of the already stressed Barwon catchment of the Murray–Darling basin. The proposal also includes an extension of the nearby rail line that, if completed, would include Australia’s longest bridge, at 14 kilometres. Given the increased resources dedicated to the site, and the manner in which Whitehaven has approached the extension, many believe that the mining company had always intended to expand its original proposal despite giving no indication of these larger ambitions during the initial proposal process.
Third-generation farmer James Barlow, whose family has been living on the opposite bank of the Namoi to the Vickery site for 50 years, said that the original proposal drew no qualms from him. However, in seeing how Whitehaven had undertaken its extension project campaign, Barlow now believes that the company “had not been honest from day dot” and that the original proposal was merely a strategy to “get their foot in the door”.
These views are shared by members of the local Narrabri Shire Council whose views on Whitehaven have been soured by previous dealings in the region. Indeed, Whitehaven is well known in this community, with four existing coal mining or processing plants. These include the controversial Maules Creek coal mine which has been at the epicentre of groundwater misuse allegations.
In observations made to the IPC in a meeting with the Narrabri Shire Council in 2018, the Council said that there was a “trust deficit” between the community and the coal company. Whitehaven was called to “provide nearby agricultural stakeholders with more resources, support and assurance with respect to the actual and perceived impacts of the project”.
Mayor of Narrabri Shire, Ms Cathy Redding, stated in that same meeting that the community “gets the feeling that Whitehaven just dismiss them and, probably because they’re a smaller community, they just don’t feel that a lot of times their concerns are listened to”.
In voting to oppose the mine extension, the Manager of Planning and Regulatory Services at Narrabri Shire, Daniel Boyce, made reference to the “cumulative impact from a number of mining projects” in the shire and in particular the township of Boggabri. Mayor Redding continued to say, there was “a very valid feeling that there have been no benefits at all to Boggabri” from existing Whitehaven operations in the area.
[This is compounded by the fact that many coal operators like Whitehaven pay almost zero in corporate tax.] With respect to the Boggabri coal mine, the community feels that environmental, water usage and disturbance regulations have been more or less ignored by the coal miner.
The Council also made reference to the dubious economic claims Whitehaven had made regarding the potential benefit the shire would receive, including job creation and the company’s poor environmental and water usage record.
Water worries and emissions
Strong opposition to new coal ventures in regional communities on the basis of public interest is a new but developing trend. Traditionally, such communities have welcomed large scale mining projects as a way to bring new life into the area.
However, the sentiments of the Narrabri Shire Council echo the IPC’s recent decision to decline the Bylong Coal Project proposal both on environmental and public interest grounds. The Narrabri Shire Council, Mayor and community hope that the IPC takes into account the damages they believe new coal mines can have on the social, ecological and economic health of regional communities.
When factoring in the emissions produced from exported coal, NSW’s coal and coal-seam gas projects have a cumulative greenhouse gas emission which exceeds three times Australia’s annual domestic emissions. Such emissions, otherwise referred to as “scope 3 emissions”, have been used by courts as a basis for rejecting coal mine proposals. This was the case with the proposed as the Rocky Hill Coal Project, which was rejected by the NSW Land and Environment Court in 2019 noting the potential environmental impact of scope 3 emissions.
In response to the Rocky Hill Project decision the NSW Minerals Council, headed by the former chief of staff to both John Howard and Mike Baird, Stephen Galilee, lobbied for the removal of scope 3 emissions from future environmental assessments of coal or coal seam gas projects. NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes has agreed to their efforts and has brought the Territorial Limits Bill to Parliament, which is currently facing an inquiry by the Legislative Assembly.
The NSW Mineral Council took further action against the IPC after the Commission rejected the Bylong Valley coal mine proposal last year. Following this decision, the lobby group successfully campaigned for a review of the IPC to be announced by the State Government.
Independent regulator under threat
The review is set to weaken the powers of the IPC, potentially undermining the Narrabri Shire community’s opposition to the Vickery Extension Proposal. Among others, the review recommends preventing the IPC from considering modifications, or extensions, to pre-existing developments. This obviously is a serious consideration for the people of Narrabri as Whitehaven has been observed using a minor proposal as a means to secure a much larger development than may have been originally permitted.
Rob Stokes, Minister for Planning and Public Spaces, has accepted the recommendations of the review, which will ultimately weaken the independence of the IPC and strip power from regional communities.
The consistent failure to uphold economic, societal and ecological obligations by Australia’s largest coal miners as well as the fact the operators such as Whitehaven pay nearly zero corporate tax brings into question whether such operations have any social license from which operate.
Yet, despite these failings and increased opposition from regional communities and councils, the NSW Mineral Council and the NSW State Government seem determined to support the industry in the face of significant detriment to local communities, economies and the environment.
The IPC will release its determination on the Vickery Coal Mine Extension Project later this year.